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Hay shortage sows distress among US livestock owners

Many ranchers and other livestock owners are in a frantic search for hay, as yields shrink amid worst drought in America in 56 years. Some are selling animals for cheap. Beef prices are projected to rise.

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“The quality of the kind of hay that may come from those fields is going to be very poor because it’s going to come from growth that developed a year ago or two years ago that was left standing and is now weathered and damaged by whatever conditions it experienced out there,” Anderson says. “So the nutrients declined and it’s now a less valuable feed resource than when it was green or growing and fresh.”

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Other options available to cattle ranchers and farmers are feeding their livestock weathered cornstalks, a less nutritional form of feed, and searching online resources to buy hay from other parts of the country.

Even that search process is fraught with difficulties, as most sellers are selling hay at almost three times the price from last year, will deal only in cash, and are rationing their supply, which means that farmers with a large stock of animals to feed are being forced to buy intermittingly and not in bulk.

“It’s hard to find. The quality is pretty decent but there’s just not any to be had,” says Steve Fridley, a racehorse trainer in Alhambra, Ill., who owns or trains about 40 horses. Last year, Mr. Fridley says, he paid $55 for a large square hay barrel; this year, the price is $135. What’s worse is the prolonged effort to acquire hay. In the past, he bought directly from his neighbor down the road, but since that crop dried up, he is forced to search online and pay hefty transportation costs.

The feed shortage, he says, will likely force him to sell at least 10 horses at rock-bottom prices.

“You can’t hardly give them away. They’re hard to get rid of because everybody is saying, ‘How do I feed it?' ” Fridley says. As for the horses he trains that are owned by others, he says he’ll likely be forced to raise his prices, which he expects will hurt his business long past this summer.

“You can’t do something and lose money doing it for very long,” he says.

The drought is the primary reason the USDA is forecasting a drop in total red meat and poultry production in 2013 – from 93 billion pounds expected this year to 91 billion next year, a 2 percent drop. The retrenchment is expected to inflate meat prices next year, especially for beef because smaller herds will yield fewer calves, which can take up to 18 months to reach slaughtering weight.

Before then, ranchers are busy culling their herds and sending them to slaughter before they would otherwise be ready to avoid further investment in feed cost. 

Prices are already higher than they were a year ago. For the week of Aug. 17, wholesale boxed beef prices were $7.50/Cwt (or 100 pounds), compared with $3.30 for the same week last year, according to the USDA.

Hay producers do not typically have insurance because it provides less coverage than does insurance for most soil crops like corn and soybeans, Ms. Nelson says. Because hay is not traded on the national exchanges, hay producers have little option but to wait until next year.

“They really don’t have any other options right now,” she says. 

IN PICTURES: Drought in the USA 

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